Participation and innovation – the danger of the label

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  • "There is no doubt that the words participation and innovation (and particularly “social innovation”) have definitively, and often together, entered the vocabulary of public administrations".
    "There is no doubt that the words participation and innovation (and particularly “social innovation”) have definitively, and often together, entered the vocabulary of public administrations". Source: Pixabay.

The "Inova Juntos" project explores the nexus between civic participation and innovation in public policies across 30 territories in Brazil, Portugal, and Latin America. It stresses the importance of inclusive and transformative participatory processes in addressing structural inequalities and fostering genuine innovation through international cooperation.

Giovanni Allegretti and Sinara Sandri


Architect, urban planner and main researcher at the Center for Social Studies (University of Coimbra)/ Journalist, PhD in Communication, researcher in post-doctoral internship at the Center for Social Studies (University of Coimbra)

Vertical photo: 
Giovanni Allegretti and Sinara Sandri.
Square photo: 
Giovanni Allegretti and Sinara Sandri.
Horizontal photo: 
Giovanni Allegretti and Sinara Sandri.

Over the last three years, as counterparts in a transnational cooperation project between local territories in Brazil, Portugal and other cross-border realities in Latin American countries that border Brazil, we have had the excellent opportunity to reflect on the role of civic participation in designing the most visible innovations in public policies in the 30 territories covered. Thus, the “Inova Juntos” project ( – in addition to being a space for exchanging interesting practices between different places – has also provided participants with the possibility of joint reflection on how terms 'participation' and 'innovation' tend to combine and generate added value, even in situations marked by ambivalence and ambiguity.

Also, “Inova Juntos” has provided creative policy transfer work, in which the content of the innovation may reveal 'absolute' characteristics (a total innovation, almost unique in a broad global panorama) or more frequently a “relative” dimension – bringing elements that are important and appear as “new” in relation to a specific territory, while they may already be the rule in other places.

There is no doubt that the words participation and innovation (and particularly “social innovation”) have definitively, and often together, entered the vocabulary of public administrations. The composition results from an interesting mix that goes beyond its original niches and ideological borders. Recovered by popular-based approaches, participation has been gaining status especially in progressive governments, while the emphasis on innovation seems to be mainly linked to a business logic of product development (which can be sectoral policies, development plans or even participatory processes based on clear sequences of actions, rigorous standard procedures and well-established methodologies).

By anchoring itself in the swampy terrain of “brand marks” (which tend to accept all the meanings of a term, with the risk of contributing to the emptying of the contents of political practices), the use of these words alerts to the fact that there is no a priori nature for processes of a strongly social nature. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that participation and innovation are not ontologically good or bad. The classic goes: it depends on the context and situation. In this specific case, it also depends on the quality of the process, the prevalence of actions over rhetoric, but also on the population sectors and topics involved and who the results actually achieve (regardless of the hopes and good intentions of the original planning). Because “participation” that remains confined to a group and does not reach a wide range of beneficiaries, will generate new exclusions and can hardly have the role that Norberto Bobbio imagined in his book “The future of democracy” (1991): participation as way of achieving some “unfulfilled promises” of representative democracy.
In the field of social sciences and politics, we cannot lose the notion that the content of participation and innovation should be related, primarily, to the identification and defense of common goods, as well as the strengthening of democracy. For this reason, it cannot be considered that there is participation or social innovation where the groups involved do not contain a broad representation of society. As Graham Smith rightly identified in the book “Democratic Innovation” (2009), “inclusiveness” can and should be considered a “democratic common good” that is necessary to protect within the construction of each innovation. Furthermore, to be innovative, participatory processes must be “transformative” and “generative”, that is, provoke a change in culture and organization of relationships between actors (and not just in institutional governance).
If we think about the rapid invasion of the field that AI (artificial intelligence) is playing a role in our lives and in the construction of many planning strategies (including in some public policies with a participatory nature), it is clear – for example – that we are facing a phenomenon of innovation without participation, despite the massive contribution that AI users offer (consciously or not) to its improvement. There is a disconnect here between the ability of AI to produce changes in our lives and to generate positive transformations in the culture of each one of us. In school education, for example, it is increasingly clear that AI is bringing risks of dependence on machines, mental laziness, loss of imagination – and that a lot of critical work is needed so that it can help generate a new culture and alternative forms of creativity that are not “delegated” to technologies. Only if we apply conscious and proactive participation in the implementation of digital innovations in our daily lives, can we not be annihilated by the lack of transparency in commercial algorithms: and we have many to learn from the processes that today (in the creation of digital platforms to promote civic participation, as well as the creation of energetic and supportive communities) attempt to introduce new forms of transparent “social algorithms” whose calculation and decision formulas are knowable and even collectively decided.
In this framework, participatory decisions can only be forged in transparent processes where participants can make conscious decisions (the “informed judgment” would thus be seen as yet another “democratic public good”). Lastly, and not least, it is worth highlighting that participatory processes and social innovations need to result in the enrichment of “popular power”, because this – in the current crisis of democratic legitimation and the perception of the “authoritativeness” of public institutions – is probably the only factor that allows many citizens to still feel like they are protagonists in controlling the quality of the political regimes in which we live.
In addition to these basic principles and in the face of the climate emergency, it is clear how the processes of participation and social innovation cannot be premised on environmental responsibility, intergenerational commitment and the respect due to all elements that inhabit the planet, including all non-human population on Earth.
Certainly, ensuring popular participation and innovation are difficult tasks. It is necessary to face resistance and the inertial dynamics of representative democracy which, despite being fragile, predominates as a form of intervention and popular consultation (often selective consultation or “cherry-picking” when using only what suits them).
Furthermore, participating and creating collective solutions implies processes that require time and also the ability to think about articulating solutions (and digesting the changes in attitude and culture that they require) over time. This factor is often forgotten by rushed processes that do not attribute sufficient value to the time variable. The very normative regulations that – more and more frequently – are created to favor participation and encourage social innovation seem to be built around temporal constraints. They end up conveying an absolutist vision of innovation and a kind of “permanent innovative frenzy” that – while seeking to calm the anxiety of creative and visible inventions to compete on the “innovative” level – ends up underestimating the importance of investing in promoting consolidation, incremental evolution and gradual reinforcement of previously experienced practices.
In fact, investing in participation and in the invention of mechanisms that enable the construction of common and lasting solutions cannot be a permanent race for something new, but requires cooperation, dialogue and the ability to learn from the mistakes that others (and ourselves) have made. It is also necessary to negotiate differences, and not just share consensus.
As the “Inova Juntos” project clearly demonstrated, as a space for international cooperation on the topic of innovations in public policies, in order to consolidate trajectories of “innovation with participation” it is also important to take care of a dimension that is often imperceptible. It has a lot to do with self-esteem and the self-expectations underlying the asymmetries that mark our planet, and those “abyssal lines” (as sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos would define them) that cause there to be institutions and communities that – judging – if excessively peripheral - they do not believe they can build anything truly innovative, not even in the context where they live and operate.
This is clearly a mistake, because the concrete practice of cooperation between the Global North and South not only highlights multiple possibilities for promoting “relative innovation” in territories with the greatest problems and basic structural deficits, but often reveals that the greatest “Absolute innovations” appear on the periphery of the world, where the greatest problems and vulnerabilities can only be faced through forms of dialogue and co-decision shared with those who bear the greatest weight of the structural inequality that is growing on the planet.

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